TALLAHASSEE — In the midst of a $6 billion state budget deficit and widespread private-sector layoffs, one Florida industry looks recession-proof: lobbying state lawmakers.
The Capitol lobbying corps earned up to $45 million from January through March to influence the Legislature. That's essentially the same amount that all 2,000 state lobbyists made in the same period in 2008, when Florida wasn't in a financial crisis.
But lobbyists didn't earn all that money despite the dire financial times — they say they earned it because of the terrible economy.
"Sure, it's ironic," lobbyist Ron Book said. "But the bottom line is people and businesses get nervous in a down economy. And they need the help. In a bad economy, you need a seat at the table. You can't walk away."
Four lobbying groups at the Capitol earned more than $1 million, according to financial disclosure reports filed last week for the first quarter of the year. It's unclear exactly how much money lobbyists brought in, because they are required to report their earnings in increments of $10,000.
That means the lobbyists earned a minimum of $19.7 million and a maximum of $45 million.
Since the two-month legislative session straddles two quarters, lobbyists earned even more money to influence legislators and Gov. Charlie Crist's administration during the entire session that ended May 8.
The lobbyist disclosure reports aren't the only measure of the cost of doing business in Tallahassee. Also in the first quarter of the year, 108 politicians in the state Capitol who are running for office raised a record $4 million in campaign contributions.
A large chunk of that campaign money came from many of the lobbyists and corporations that sought lawmakers' help. The top contributors also hired the most paid advocates and hail from the telecommunications, health, energy, tobacco, gambling and insurance industries.
Former Senate President Tom Lee said he successfully pushed for the lobbyist disclosure system in 2005 to give citizens a glimpse into what happens in the Capitol.
"A reason lobbying is relatively recession-proof is that most of what the Legislature does is referee fistfights between special interest groups. And those never go away," he said.
Lee said hiring a lobbyist is a type of "investment."
He said the money flowing through the Capitol, coupled with a grand jury report criticizing the budget process, should be an eye-opener for Floridans.
"It's hard for people to think of the power the Legislature has over the life and death of a business," he said. "Just changing the word 'may' to 'shall' in statute can either earn or cost a corporation tens of millions of dollars."
A lobbyist's assistance is crucial in helping clients state their case to legislators and navigate the brief lawmaking session. This year, there was more competition for state dollars because the state had less money. Many corporations felt more need than ever to play defense as legislators settled on raising $2.2 billion in higher taxes and fees to balance the $66.5 billion budget.
Corporations also competed for a rare prize this session: a piece of the $13.4 billion in federal stimulus money that Washington made available to the state over three years.
"Washington has replaced Wall Street as the nation's financial nerve center," said Brian Ballard, a top lobbyist whose firm earned more than $1 million.
"And Tallahassee, while we're not printing money, has become a focal point for Florida corporate interests, who are making sure they're not going to bear the brunt of fixing the hole in Florida's budget," he said.
Case in point: the tobacco industry. It spent as much as much as $689,000 on lobbyists to fight a new tax.
Though lawmakers ultimately approved a $1-a-pack cigarette tax, the cigar industry escaped taxation. The big tobacco companies made sure to walk away with something: the right to post a lower amount of bond money when they appeal judgments in cases brought by sick smokers.
Not every business was playing defense.
Telecom giant AT&T hired more than three dozen lobbyists and spent as much as $1 million, more than any other company. It sought to persuade legislators to give phone companies the right to raise rates more quickly. A stripped-down version of the legislation passed. An AT&T spokesman declined to comment.
As legislators considered expanding gambling, gaming interests spent a maximum of about $1.3 million on lobbyists. The energy industry, seeking more incentives for alternative fuels, spent about $1.4 million.
U.S. Sugar Corp. also sought a piece of the alternative-energy legislation, which died. The company spent the second-highest individual sum on lobbyists, up to $476,000, as it protected an Everglades buyout of its lands.
U.S. Sugar spokesman Robert Coker said the money was well spent. "You need to make sure you're well represented," he said.
Marc Caputo can be reached at email@example.com.